This week, the engagement of American actress Meghan Markle to British royal Prince Harry set social media ablaze.
Race is at the center of this internet firestorm: Markle is biracial, with a Black mother and white father. As a Black and white mixed-race woman who studies multiracial identity and interracial relationships, the online debates over Markle and her fiancé have been both perplexing and unsurprising. Over the last year, Markle’s racial background has drawn negative press in Britain. Last November, Prince Harry publicly called out the barely veiled racism and sexism in the media coverage of their relationship. Despite this treatment, their engagement is viewed as an opportunity to change what it means to be British and royal, with American fans celebrating a “real Black princess” who will bring #BlackGirlMagic to the royal family and the seemingly stale royal wedding traditions. Several essays have been written about what Markle’s presence means for the British monarchy and the broader racial politics of the West.
Hiding under the surface of the more hopeful pieces—namely Afua Hirsch’s argument that their union will alter race in Britain forever—is an assumed post-racial exceptionalism often projected onto mixed-race people and interracial couplings. As British comedian Gina Yashere noted in a Channel 4 roundtable interview, Markle is “not exotic” and “not from a tribe in the Amazon,” but is merely “an American.” The thread of simultaneous exoticness and mundaneness that permeates the discussion of Markle, as well as the suggestion that her marriage to Prince Harry will be Britain’s “Obama moment,” implies that multiracial people can foster racial harmony by merging supposedly disparate racial backgrounds. In my own research, I have referred to this framing around mixed-race women as the construction of an utopic subject: a figure that embodies an idealized racial future where race is no longer relevant, presumably achieved through interracial sex, marriage, and procreation.
This notion is best summed up by the iconic November 1993 TIME cover story featuring the computer-generated “Eve,” the so-called new face of America. Within the contradictory logics of alleged multicultural societies like the United States and the United Kingdom, Markle is exotic by virtue of her Blackness and her racial ambiguity. Yet she also is framed as unremarkable for these same reasons; for some, Markle’s Blackness is nothing to celebrate because she’s part of a Eurocentric-beauty-standard conforming, biracial-identifying package. Yashere’s comments also call attention to the ways Markle’s biracial background has been framed as inherently radical; her infiltration of the white establishment—the literal figureheads of the British Empire and colonial power—is (jokingly?) viewed by some as an intentional undermining of whiteness.
Yet British academics have suggested that Markle will not have the opportunity to figuratively shake the table because she will likely be pressured to avoid foregrounding her biracial identity and pass into whiteness. There is also the uncomfortable fact that African and Caribbean nations are still suffering from the colonial legacies of the British and other European powers; given these legacies, is it even reasonable to expect Black people in the diaspora to celebrate this marriage? While Markle has yet to explicitly make any claims that connect her race to the future of Britain, her 2015 Elle essay is telling. Within it, she notes the pressure from her teacher to identify solely as white, since “that is what she looks like” and her subsequent confusion since she envisioned her mother being hurt by that choice. Her adamant embrace of a biracial, rather than Black, identity has been met with joy from some mixed-race people (who feel that biracial people are underrepresented in media) and ire from some Black Americans who feel that she is either distancing herself from Blackness or that she is just more of the same light-skinned, normative representation that Hollywood has provided for decades. Others question whether marrying a royal is representation at all.
It is unlikely Markle will ever hold the title of princess or queen, given that Prince Harry is now fifth in line to throne; instead, she will be named a Duchess once Harry receives his title on their wedding day. Plus, Markle is hardly the first Black or mixed-race woman, let alone the first American, to wed royalty. So why has her engagement inspired such strong reactions? Thanks to the scourge that is normative gender-binary socialization, many young girls and women are inundated with popular culture images and stories that privilege a princess fantasy, wherein they get their heteronormative happily ever after with the handsome man of their dreams. Disney has based much of its business model on selling the princess narrative, slowly diversifying its roster of cinematic princesses with the likes of Jasmine, Tiana, Moana, and Mulan (who was not royalty and never married a prince). Though Tiana was celebrated as a Black Disney princess, even her portrayal drew critique because she’s a frog for the majority of the film. While it’s easy to chalk up the excitement over Markle’s engagement to a need for levity and joy in such dark times, it also illustrates the investment in even surface-level representation and the continued power of the notion of the princess, particularly the idea that joining an establishment like the British royal family is an achievement on its own.
Meghan Markle (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The underlying tension regarding skin color privilege and beauty aesthetics further complicates this notion of representation. Rachel Zane, Markle’s character on Suits was a biracial paralegal-turned-lawyer who made visible the workplace experiences of women of color; however, representation in scripted media is not necessarily transferrable to a royal wedding. The true representative value of Markle’s engagement is that it provides a high-profile case of what interracial relationships can look like for mixed-race people. Despite the attention paid to the growing mixed-race population in the United States, it is uncommon to see romantic relationships involving multiracial people reflected in pop culture. Advertisements featuring interracial couples or families continue to draw backlash, and even Markle noted the importance of her parents combining doll sets for her so that she could have a doll family that looked like her own.
Yes, there are a number of mixed-race actors and actresses that play romantic love interests; many of these characters, however, are written as monoracial. This is especially the case with a majority of films and television shows that feature Black women as the protagonists; actresses like Halle Berry, Paula Patton, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Zendaya, and Amandla Stenberg perpetuate an image of Black women as only light-skinned. Even the social science research is limited in its understanding of the relationship practices and experiences of mixed-race adults, though some online dating research suggests that just being mixed with white increases a person’s desirability and attractiveness. My own research indicates that there may be a tendency among mixed-race women to seek white partners, a trend some scholars conclude is a result of the “honorary whiteness” some multiracial people have access to.
For multiracial women who are unambiguously women of color, the quality of their dating experiences differs significantly from women who are more white presenting. In fact, women who are mixed with Black and who are darker-skinned end up performing extra work to “vet” potential partners and determine if they are worth dating based on racial politics. Thus, Markle and Prince Harry provide a reference point for those who do (or don’t) see value in interracial relationships, but also give mixed-race people in interracial relationships a way to see themselves. The relevance of such visibility seems greater at present, given the waves of white nationalist sentiment that demonize such pairings. While it would be irresponsible to think that this marriage will directly result in any substantive social change, it is also important to not dismiss the power of symbols, no matter how surface level they may be.